USA Sevens Recap
As the tournament sitting at the midway point of the season, the USA Sevens in Las Vegas is a pivot point for the entire season. Last year, Fiji entered the tournament seemingly having lost form in the two previous tournaments. Instead, the Fijians shocked New Zealand to close pool play and charged through the knockout round to claim the title. For team USA, talent and potential broke through for the squad’s first semifinal birth since 2010. Since then, Fiji has claimed a series crown and the Eagles have reached three more semifinals with the London Sevens crown to boot.
As is always the case under the bright lights of Las Vegas, it was a case of expect the unexpected as upsets ruled the landscape.
Pool A got things under way. Despite upsets proving to be the biggest story of the USA Sevens, the tournament began in predictable fashion. The New Zealand All Blacks Sevens started–on the heels of consecutive cup titles in Wellington and Sydney–easily dispatched Portugal (42–7). The second match was a great deal less predictable. Russia, a team that had yet to win a pool match on the season came painfully close to shocking Kenya. With no time left, Russia held a two-point lead before Kenyan magic proved the difference maker: Kenya 24, Russia 21.
The second round of matches in Pool A were much more as expected. New Zealand shutout Russia (38–0) and Kenya followed suit over Portugal (38–0). The result left Russia and Portugal to fight for seeding in the bowl and New Zealand and Kenya to decide who would top the pool heading into the cup quarterfinal. Russia, desperately looking to stay ahead of Portugal in the series standings unleashed a 31-point shutout victory over the Portuguese. Shockingly, Kenya did the same thing to series leaders New Zealand: Kenya 22, New Zealand 0.
Coming in, Pool B was clearly the most intriguing, but no one could have foreseen how it played out on the field. Australia, fresh off an appearance in the Sydney final, was the clear favorite to top the pool. The expected battle for the second seed would be between Scotland and England. Australia got off to a strong start with a shutout (26–0) victory over Scotland. For Scotland the loss was tough, but did little to destroy hopes for a first quarterfinal appearance on the season. For England, hopes of returning to winning ways took a major hit when Japan took a 19–5 lead late in the second half. England was able to battle to a draw, but Japan had clearly sent a message: Japan 19, England 19.
Australia brought Japan back to earth with a commanding (35–5) win to secure a quarterfinal birth. In the highly anticipated England-Scotland match, the Scots flipped a 14–12 deficit at the half into a 24–14 victory over a fierce rival. With the win in hand, Scotland seemed likely to advance to the quarterfinal. All Scotland needed was a victory over Japan. For England, a win over Australia was now a must and a Scottish loss would also be necessary.
Japan, as it had against England, saw a comfortable lead slip away. At the break, Japan was up 19–7. With no time left, the match was level at 19–19 before Japan scored a try to knock Scotland out of quarterfinal contention: Japan 26, Scotland 19. With the Japanese victory in the books, England only needed a win over Australia. Although Australia had already clinched the top seed, the Aussies came out much more hungry than England. Australia closed pool play with a perfect record after a 24-point second half effort put England away (36–7).
The England loss left a team that started the season in the Dubai final as the bottom seed in Pool B. Even more shocking was that Japan, a team relegated after poor showings a year ago, had earned a quarterfinal birth. It is the first time Japan has reached the quarterfinal outside of the Tokyo Sevens. It is also the first time a non-core team has reached the cup round since the series expanded to fifteen core teams. To put things into perspective, last year non-core teams combined for a record of 0–45. By the time the tournament was over, Japan, despite not playing in Cape Town, is ahead of two core teams in the series standings and within three points of two other teams.
Although Pool B was home to the most shocking quarterfinalist, Pool C had the most shocking upset. Fiji entered Las Vegas in a three-way tie atop the series standings. In the wake of tropical cyclone Winston and the deaths of dozens of Fijians and the destruction of the homes of countless others, team Fiji came looking not only to regain command of the series and to repeat as USA Sevens champion, but also to give some good news to a nation ravaged by tragedy. Things did not start well for team Fiji.
In what has been historically one of the finest rivalries in sevens, Samoa, once a series champion now on hard times, shocked Fiji with a try on full time: Samoa 28, Fiji 24. With Fiji’s vulnerability exposed, Argentina looked poised to reach for the top seed. That hope was helped by a 26–7 showing against wayward France. The enigmatic French team finished third in Cape Town and last in Sydney. It is tough to predict which French team will show up, but it became clear early in Vegas that this was not the France team to break back into the quarterfinal. Fiji jumped to a 28–0 lead and never looked back: Fiji 42, France 12.
Samoa, looking to build on a great win over Fiji turned to a tough match with Argentina. Samoa was looking to reach the quarterfinal for the first time since the season’s inaugural contest in Dubai. Instead, Argentina proved the better side (25–12). With Fiji back in the winners’ column and Samoa at 1–1, a possibility of a three-way tie at 2–1 atop the pool was a distinct possibility. That possibility was dashed when Samoa surrendered thirty-one points to France, losing 31–17. Samoa’s loss meant that Argentina was through to the quarterfinal, but Fiji was still vulnerable–though a commanding points differential for Fiji made a cup birth almost a certainty. In the end, Fiji found itself in the familiar position of pool champion with a 15–12 victory over Argentina.
For the home crowd, no pool was of greater importance than Pool D. South Africa, tied with New Zealand and Fiji atop the series, got things started in dominant fashion: South Africa 33, Canada 7. For team USA, hopes of reaching consecutive USA semifinals meant needing a win over struggling Wales.
In 29 prior meetings, Wales had posted a 20–9 record. Nevertheless, Wales had not defeated team USA since 2013. Since then, the Eagles are on a four-match win streak Martin Iosefo got the Eagles on the board first when he took a pass from Madison Hughes at the ten meter and darted through the Welsh defense. Hughes added the conversion for the 7–0 lead. Wales soon answered with a long-distance try from Jordan Williams that began inside his own 22. The conversion drew the match level, but not for long. The Eagles won the restart and Folau Niua kicked the ball down field into the Welsh 22 where a hard charging Carlin Isles was able to scoop the ball up at the five-meter line and dot it down in the left corner. Hughes was unable to slot the difficult conversion. As halftime neared, Isles looked like he might add another score. Instead, Wales earned the turnover and worked it into the right corner to level the match (12–12) at the half.
In the second half Danny Barrett capped off an offload from Niua to score just to the right of the post. Hughes added the conversion to put the United States ahead (19–12). The Welsh defense remained stiff in the second half. The Eagles were unable to add any more points, but managed to also keep Wales off the board. With no time remaining, Wales had a scrum and managed to work the ball wide with a chance to break the USA defense. Instead, the last pass of the match missed the Welsh winger and dribbled into touch to give team USA an uninspired victory.
With the narrow victory over Wales in hand, a victory over Canada would likely set up a showdown with South Africa to decide the pool champion. Team USA, once the rare victor over Canada went 4–1 against Canada last season on the series and defeated team Canada in the NACRA final to qualify for the Olympic games, though team Canada came out the winner (26–19) in their last meeting in the Pan Am Games. Still, team USA was the favorite heading in. As Fiji and Samoa proved, however, expectations can be thrown out the window when rivalries are involved.
The match could not have started better for the United States. The Eagles won the kickoff and worked the ball wide to Zack Test for a try in the left corner. Hughes failed to connect on the tough conversion, leaving the Americans ahead 5–0. Canada won the ensuing restart and worked into the USA 22 before Madison Hughes was able to strip the ball and lead to a scrum. Unfortunately, Maka Unufe was lost with a shoulder injury on the exchange. The Eagles won the scrum and Perry Baker chipped the ball over the defense. Baker scooped the bounce and raced down the pitch for a try under the post. Hughes added the easy conversion to extend the lead to twelve. Canada soon answered back to pull within five. The ensuing restart provided a favorable bounce for Martin Iosefo who ran untouched for the score. Hughes added the conversion to put his side up 19–7 at halftime.
Early in the second half, Canada was mere meters from a try but instead ended up with a knock on, giving a five-meter scrum for the Eagles in the shadow of their own goalposts. The Americans won the scrum and passed in goal to Perry Baker who took to flight from deep inside his own goal to go coast to coast for the score under the post. Hughes added the conversion and the lead stood at an impressive 26–7. That was the end of the impressive portion of the American effort. Form that point on, Canada dominated.
Canada won the restart and after a few phases, Conor Trainor founds some space, getting through a Zack Test tackle and scoring under the post. The conversion set the score at 26–14. With just under three minutes remaining, Canada had plenty of time. The Eagles won the restart, but Phil Mack stripped the ball away and seconds later Nathan Hirayama scored in the right corner to pull Canada within five points after a great conversion. With 1:30 left, Canada again won the restart. Phil Mack crossed in the left corner to draw the match level 23 seconds later. Fortunately for Eagles’ fans, the tough conversion did not find home. With ten seconds left, the Eagles were dinged for accidental offside on the kickoff to give a scrum to Canada with no time remaining. Canada won the scrum and again probed the right side, but found no space. The match ended when Canada was unable to connect on a sure try-scoring final pass when Test attempted an interception. Test’s missed interception resulted in a knock on to end the match with a draw: USA 26, Canada 26.
The draw and a narrow victory over Wales left team USA in peril of missing the quarterfinal for the first time this season. Fortunately for the home fans, Wales upset Canada 17–10, leaving Canada winless. The result meant that team USA was through to the quarterfinal. All that remained in the final match was to decide seeding. Ironically, with Kenya upsetting New Zealand, the second seed seemed a more tantalizing position.
Team USA entered the match against South Africa under identical circumstances as last year. There, the Eagles entered with the Blitzbokke heavily favored. The United States looked the better side in that match with South Africa fighting back to earn the draw. It was a result that inspired the Eagles to a strong win over Canada in the quarterfinal.
The tale of the match was one of fierce defense from South Africa as the Blitzbokke incessantly held players up in tackles to slow the ball down and diminish the explosive capabilities of the United States. The match was also marked by South Africa dominating possession. After nearly four minutes, relentless pressure paid off as South Africa took the 5–0 lead. That lead remained into the final minute of the half when South Africa worked inside the USA 22. At that point, the Eagles struggled in tackling, causing them to overcommit and leaving space on the right wing. South Africa exploited the space for a try in the corner and an excellent conversion to take a 12–0 halftime lead.
The second half went much the same. South Africa won the kickoff and quickly powered through the defense for Seabelo Senatla, the leading try-scorer on the season. The conversion pushed the shutout out 19–0. The exchange also left Perry Baker shaken up and sent Will Holder off with a blow to the head. Holder, like Unufe, was lost for the tournament, and maybe longer. Although the United States won the restart, the Blitzbokke strategy of holding up the ball carrier panned out again as they dragged Garrett Bender into touch. South Africa won the lineout, but the Eagles looked poised for turnover ball. Instead, sloppy ball resulted in the fourth try for South Africa. Cecil Afrika would add a fifth try to give South Africa the 29–0 victory on full time.
Although the loss was not the worst thing, the form of the loss looked like it would be a major blow to morale. It could have been even worse. South Africa absolutely dominated the match and looked unbeatable in the process. Nevertheless, the Eagles were through to the quarterfinal with a match against a Kenyan side that overcame a major deficit to knock the Eagles out in the plate semifinal in Sydney.
Unlike most of the tournaments on the series, the USA Sevens covers three days instead of two. This means that the first two matches in pool play are on day 1 with the final match of pool play coming on day 2. Day 2 ends with each team competing in the first match of knockout play. This meant that team USA, fresh off a devastating loss to South Africa, had to take the field against a Kenyan team coming off a jaw-dropping shutout of New Zealand. In the past, the Eagles may well have folded under the pressure; but that is not the team we’ve come to know under Mike Friday.
Danny Barret struck first to get the Eagles on the board with a skillful run out of a man that looks like a modern day Viking. Madison Hughes slotted the simple conversion. The next score came from Perry Baker in the right corner after Martin Iosefo drew in the Kenyan defense before passing out to Baker. Hughes nailed the long-distance conversion to extend the lead to 14–0 a quarter of the way into the match. The Eagles looked poised to score a third unanswered try off a lineout through, but Kenya stole the ball and Collins Injera exploded through the American defense for the converted try. The restart came after the hooter. Team USA recovered the loose ball and earned a penalty at the ensuing ruck. Baker looked for space on the wing but was bottled up. The ball worked back to Zack Test who was penalized for not releasing at the Kenya ten-meter line. Kenya capitalized on the penalty, adding a converted try to end the half with the teams level at 14–14.
The second half started with Baker cutting through the Kenyan defense but unable to find the tryzone. Instead, Baker an ill-advised pop pass from Baker gave the ball away. The Eagles soon won the ball back with a penalty at the Kenya 22. The ball worked out to Baker on the left touchline who went into contact. Barrett followed with a strong ruck to preserve possession and Folau Niua stepped in to pass to Martin Iosefo who charged down the left touchline for the try. With the wind picking up, Hughes again nailed the tough conversion to put the Eagles in front (21–14). Zack Test was penalized on the restart giving Kenya the ball at its own 22. Kenya took the tap and managed to maintain possession despite hard-hitting rucks. The pressure forced Kenya to commit as many as five players in the ruck. Ultimately, Barrett was able to force a penalty to win the turnover with three minutes remaining. Hughes kicked to touch inside the Kenya 22. Team USA won the lineout and worked the ball through the lines until Test was able to pick and go from a ruck to score in the right corner. With the flags swirling, Hughes was unable to send home the conversion, but the lead stood at 26–14. On the restart, Test timed his hit perfectly, unlike the restart before. The tackle left Kenya on the back foot with the deep restart–a tactic the Eagles used effectively throughout the match. With the clock showing zero and the Eagles with a penalty, they oddly chose to try and score instead of ending the match. The United States was unable to score and, in fact, it was Kenya with the best chance to score before the end of the match, having worked the ball into the USA half before losing possessing. Again, the Eagle tried to continue to play and sloppy passing backed them up deep into their own half. Finally, sanity returned when Iosefo kicked to touch to end the match: USA 26, Kenya 14.
The win sent team USA through to the semifinal for the eighth time in program history. Prior to reaching the semifinal in the 2015 USA Sevens, the Eagles had done so only three times. Now, in less than two seasons under Mike Friday, the team has done so on five occasions. It is easy to see why this team carries more than hope when it plays; it shoulders the burden of expectations.
In the other three quarterfinals, Fiji dominated Japan (43–7), South Africa outlasted New Zealand (14–7), and Australia bested Argentina (26–12). In the semifinals, Australia edged out South Africa (14–12) in a heavily penalized match wherein both Australia tries were penalty tries, there were two yellow cards, and a red card was shown. For team USA, the semifinal against Fiji would require a major upset to reach the final, but not an impossible upset.
The Eagles entered the match without Maka Unufe and without Will Holder. Fortunately, Danny Barrett was able to bounce back from an arm injury in the match against Kenya. The match began with the wind whipping and a wet pitch from a light rain. The artificial turf–the first time artificial turf has been used on the series–held up well in the rain. With the wind blowing in his face, Folau Niua’s kickoff failed to go ten meters but Fiji chose to pick it up anyway. Fiji then powered to the USA 10 before Jasa Veremalua executed a quintessentially Fijian try by carrying the ball in one hand over the American defender’s head. With the posts rocking in the wind, the straight-on conversion went over to give Fiji the seven-point advantage. With under two minutes left in the half, Danny Barrett got the Eagles on the board. Hughes added the conversion to draw the match level. With the wind making restarts unpredictable, Fiji won the kickoff, but soon lost possession when Garrett Bender was able to drag the ball carrier into touch. The resulting lineout, however, looked to be effected by the wind and went past the USA line. Fiji picked it up and added a try in the left corner. The difficult conversion kick, aided by the wind, was good, giving Fiji a 14–7 lead to start the second half.
In the second half, Fiji decided to adjust by kicking line-drive restarts. The first kickoff struck beautifully in field before rolling into touch inside the USA 22. The sloppy lineout led to a Fijian scrum. The Eagles soon won the ball back with a Fijian penalty and soon won a yellow card for a Fijian player throwing the ball away after a penalty. The United States took the quick tap and rapidly advanced to midfield. The Eagles managed to lose the ball forward and Fiji hopped on the chance to add a short-handed try. Again, from the tough right corner, the Fijian goal kicker proved a virtuoso to go in front 21–7. Unfortunately for American hopes, the Eagles were not able to score until the final seconds when Baker capped off an offload from Iosefo. Hughes added the conversion to pull to 21–14. It had appeared that the hooter sounded prior to the conversion, yet the official allowed a restart. Fiji cleanly recovered the kick and booted to touch to clinch a birth in the final.
The loss sent team USA to a rematch with South Africa for third-place, the same fate for each as a year ago. The Blitzbokke entered the match down three players to injuries; the Eagles down two. As the match began, clouds crept in and the wind started rattling the posts and was visibly whipping the shirts of the players. South Africa struck first three minutes into the match with a converted try. The Eagles answered back when Danny Barrett cut through the South African defense and offload to Test who got to the South Africa five-meter line. Although a try-scoring opportunity was lost when the wind dragged a pass from Madison Hughes to Folau Niua forward, out of the reach of Niua, the position finally paid off when Hughes poached the ball and passed wide to Perry Baker for a try in the right corner. The tricky wind prevented the conversion, leaving South Africa two points clear. Just before half, Senatla added another converted try to his impressive season to put South Africa two scores in front.
Forty seconds into the second half, South Africa added a third converted try, likely putting the match out of reach. Carlin Isles added a try late in the match to flatter the score line, but with the resulting restart coming with 1:13 left on the clock, it was too little too late. South Africa held on for the victory: RSA 21, USA 10. The match, though another loss, was a much better showing by team USA. In pool play, the Americans looked like they could do nothing right. In the third-place match, tighter play and a few more timely calls may have seen the United States come out ahead.
In the lower tier competitions, Canada was humiliated by a 19–10 loss to Russia in the bowl quarterfinal. Joining Canada in the shield competition was a humbled team England after losing 21–19 to France and a disappointing Samoa, having lost 17–12 to Scotland, and Portugal after a 31–12 loss to Wales. In the shield semifinal, Canada outclassed England 24–7 sending England to a dead last finish. England finished last season in fourth place and started the year by reaching the Dubai final. Joining England in shame was Portugal after losing (29–14) to Samoa. It is the fourth last-place finish for Portugal and squanders any moment from the bowl semifinal appearance in Sydney. With Russia finding form of late, it seems like a certainty that Portugal will be relegated at season’s end. Samoa salvaged some dignity by topping Canada (24–12) to win the shield.
In the bowl semifinal, Wales bested British rival Scotland (21–14) to earn an appearance in the bowl final. With Wales joining England and Scotland to form team Great Britain in Rio, the result will hopefully help the selectors to look to Wales. Joining Wales in the final was France after edging Russia (15–14). Wales ended up posting its best finish of the season by defeating France (28–14) to lift the bowl. The result may help to stabilize a Welsh team that has fallen on hard times.
In the plate competition, Japan proved it was deserving of recognition by beating Kenya (19–14). The win set up a match with New Zealand in the plate final after the Kiwis defeated Argentina (24–19). Heading into the match, Japan had never beaten New Zealand, a track record that remained unchanged at day’s end. The Brave Blossoms lived up to their name, but New Zealand lived up to a legacy of greatness: New Zealand 27, Japan 7. Although Japan ultimately faltered, there can be little doubt that Japan is the heavy favorite to win the series qualifier in Hong Kong and to rejoin the series as a core team next year. Unfortunately, because Japan is not a core team, it will not be traveling to Vancouver next weekend. The non-core spot will be filled by Brazil.
In the final, Australia proved that consecutive final appearances have not been a fluke. Australia stormed to a 15–0 lead at the half. The second half, though, went the way of Fiji. With the lead at a single point, Australia looked poised to score a try to, perhaps, put the match out of reach. Instead, Quade Cooper spilled the ball inches shy of the try line. Fiji grabbed the ball and worked it wide to the winger deep in his own goal. As Perry Baker had done earlier in the tournament, Savenaca Rawaca went coast to coast for the go-ahead score. In the end, Fiji was able to defend its title and bring some smiles to a devastated nation.
The series continues next weekend with the inaugural Vancouver Sevens. Check back for coverage here as the season goes forward.